Alla Nedashkivska | Teaching Ukrainian Studies in Canada: Contemporary Post-secondary Learners

Alla Nedashkivska




ALLA NEDASHKIVSKA is a professor of Slavic applied linguistics in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies and acting director of the Ukrainian Language Education Centre at CIUS, University of Alberta. Currently she is also the team lead on the Nationalities, Culture, and Language Policies research cluster of the Research Initiative on Democratic Reforms in Ukraine international research project. Dr. Nedashkivska has published on Slavic linguistics, discourse analysis, gender linguistics, and political and media language, as well as on language pedagogy and second-language acquisition in Ukrainian. She is the author of Ukrainian language textbooks—one of which, Ukrainian Through Its Living Culture (2010) won the 2012 AATSEEL Book Prize for best contribution to language pedagogy.



Introduction and Objectives

This paper is an attempt and opportunity to engage in a discussion with those of us interested in teaching Ukrainian studies at post-secondary institutions in Canada about the challenges we face today.

Over the past few decades we have seen a steady decline in the number of Ukrainian studies courses—specifically, language, literature, and/or cultural studies—taught at the six universities in Canada that offer such programs. These institutions are: the University of Toronto, York University, University of Saskatchewan, University of Manitoba, University of Alberta, and University of Victoria. The marked decline is disheartening, with programs that were built over long periods of time and with great effort by the Ukrainian community and academics gradually unravelling. The most telling signs of these declines have been:

  Reduction in the number of faculty members teaching in the programs (retirements and non-hiring of replacements);

>   Decrease in the number and variety of courses offered (owing to enrolment minimums in some institutions, such as the University of Alberta);

  Decrease in the number of courses taught in the target language;

  Lowering of levels taught (i.e., reduction of advanced-level courses);

>   Curtailment of majors in Ukrainian; and

>   Loss of graduate-student support, leading to a lack of teaching assistants able to train as future academics in teaching and pedagogy at post-secondary levels in this field.

Recent discussions about mitigating these declines have usually focused on returning the programs to their previous forms, reinstituting the same variety and levels of courses that existed in the past and increasing the number of students who focus their degrees on Ukrainian studies.

Such a focus, albeit laudable, may actually be faulty, dated, and limiting. Orientation toward past practices, structures, and successes does not address the needs of today’s learners. Our approaches to assessing the practices of teaching and learning today must stem first of all from our understanding of the current situation of our contemporary learners. In striving to secure and grow our offerings and/or programs, we have to consider that the motivations of today’s learners have shifted and continue to shift in our rapidly changing world and economy. Responses to the challenges we all face in our respective institutions must be grounded in familiarity with our students, keeping in mind that the educational and professional focus of students today is vastly different from those of learners of forty-some years ago, when most of our programs were established.

Therefore, as a professional response to the challenges we face in Ukrainian studies, including the dearth of scholarly attention to the issues of learners in Ukrainian or the above considerations, Nedashkivska and Sivachenko recently conducted a research study on what motivates and what demotivates today’s students to enrol in Ukrainian studies courses.

In the present paper I share selected results that are most likely to be of interest to this [audience] (for full details of the study, see Nedashkivska and Sivachenko). Primarily I offer a discussion of the main findings, concluding with some recommendations based on our empirical research work.

The main questions we pose in the study, as reported here, are the following:Who is our contemporary student in Ukrainian studies at the post-secondary level?” and “What motivates and what demotivates students in studying Ukrainian: language, culture, folklore, literature, linguistics, and history?” In the original study, we identify and focus on four groups of students, specifically:

>   Students taking Ukrainian language courses (Group 1: language enrolled);

>   Those in Ukrainian content courses (Group 2: content enrolled);

>   Students who took a language course at the post-secondary level in the past but did not continue (Group 3: previously language enrolled); and

  Students active in the Ukrainian community who have never taken any Ukrainian studies courses but are potentially interested in Ukrainian studies (Group 4: never enrolled).

Our objectives are to study our learners both quantitatively and qualitatively, first measuring the motivational factors for the four groups of students and then proceeding to establish motivational factors based on the actual data. Our goal is to present motivational profiles of our current, past, and potential students.


Sixty participants were solicited for this study, 42 female and 18 male. All are from one Canadian post-secondary institution that offers courses in Ukrainian studies. “Group 1: language enrolled” was comprised of 38 participants, “Group 2: content enrolled” had 12 participants, “Group 3: previously language enrolled” was represented by 5 participants, and “Group 4: never enrolled” involved 5 participants.

Out of all the participants, 93 percent were students of Ukrainian descent. Many (33 percent) were in various humanities programs, 23 percent were in sciences, and 20 percent had not yet defined their major. The remaining respondents were enrolled in studies at the Faculty of Education (13 percent), Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry (7 percent), and the School of Business (3 percent).

In order to investigate the research objectives initially posed and establish an instrument for data collection and analysis, Dörnyei’s second-language (L2) motivational framework was utilized as the main theoretical foundation of the study (“Motivation,” “Attitudes”). Dörnyei conceptualizes motivation at three levels: (a) the language level (which we replace with “subject area level”); (b) the learner level; and (c) the learning situation level.

The subject area level is concerned with reasons to learn certain subjects and consists of two motivational orientations: instrumental and integrative (concepts originally proposed by Gardner and Lambert (“Motivation Variables,” Attitudes). Instrumental motivation emphasizes pragmatic gains for learners, such as earning good grades, getting a better job, higher salary, and acceleration on the socio-economic ladder. Integrative motivation relates to learners’ positive attitudes toward the target language community and their desire to interact with members of that community (Dörnyei, “Motivation,” 274).

This integrative motivational system “is centered around the individual’s L2-related affective predispositions, including social, cultural, and ethnolinguistic components, as well as a general interest in foreignness and foreign languages” (Dörnyei, “Motivation,” 279). The learner level focuses on learners’ personality traits and cognition. At this level, the motivational components focus on a learner’s need for achievement as well as their self-confidence, including “various aspects of language anxiety, perceived L2 competence, attributions about past experiences, and self-efficacy” (Dörnyei, “Motivation,” 279). The learning situation level deals with the learning environment, which includes (1) course-specific elements, that is, organizational tools such as the syllabus, teaching resources and textbooks, and the teaching and learning methodology; (2) instructor-specific factors such as instructor personality, teaching style, feedback and grading, and relationship with the students; and (3) group-specific factors that relate to the learning group’s structure, its cohesion and atmosphere, as well as the relationship among peers, that is, the overall dynamic among learners (Dörnyei, “Motivation,” 277–80).

This theoretical framework was used to design a motivational questionnaire for the original study. The questions aimed at gathering information about student demographics, including their past, present, and prospective educational experiences, as well as questions that focused on eliciting data about students’ motivational factors for enrolling, continuing in, or not taking Ukrainian studies courses. The questions were organized according to the three levels of motivational framework mentioned above (Dörnyei, “Motivation,” “Attitudes”). The questionnaires were administered during the 2014–15 academic year.

The data obtained were analyzed both quantitatively and qualitatively in order to investigate motivational and demotivational factors of students, or potential students, of Ukrainian studies, allowing for the study of data from two different perspectives. The quantitative results allowed us to measure the motivational profiles of participants, while the qualitative angle enabled us to understand the students’ perspectives on how their motivation relates to their learning experiences, present or potential. In this paper, owing to space limitations, only a summary of both analyses is presented (please consult Nedashkivska and Sivachenko for full details of the analyses).

Results overview and discussion

The results of the quantitative analysis highlight that at the subject area level—specifically, with respect to both integrative and instrumental motivational factors—all four groups show more or less similar results. With respect to the integrative side, the crucial motivating factors were established as follows: participant’s desire to integrate into the community; better understanding of culture, history, literature, music, and the like; being successful in communication with native speakers; and learning about one’s heritage. With respect to the instrumental orientations, considerations of good grades, future career gains, and degree requirements were the most noticeable. Remarkably, Group 3 students, who were enrolled in language classes but did not continue, showed the highest results with respect to both integrative and instrumental factors compared to other groups. This suggests that students with the highest motivational scores could choose nevertheless not to continue with Ukrainian studies. Such results are in need of further examination, as it would be important to qualify and quantify the factors that influence students’ educational choice to opt out of Ukrainian studies.

In addition, our quantitative study showed that at the learner-specific level, current language learners representing Group 1 showed the lowest self-confidence and the highest levels of anxiety. These results also deserve more detailed examination. In particular, do they indicate highest levels of anxiety in lower-level language classes or in lower-level (area study) classes in general? Which specific factors contribute to such low levels of self-confidence and commitment/motivation, and do these relate to the students’ early term of exposure to post-secondary studies? Currently we do not have clear answers to these questions.

At the learning situation level, participants from all four groups reported mostly positively on the atmosphere, course load, teaching materials, and instructor’s teaching approach and personality. At this level, the statistically most visible group is (again) “Group 1: language enrolled.” Participants from this group voiced more concerns and demotivators when compared to other groups with respect to atmosphere, course load, teaching materials, and instructor’s teaching methods.

Because the quantitative analysis in our study raised more questions than it answered, we turned to the qualitative angle of the analysis, from which the following results emerged.

At the subject-area level, ten main motivators and demotivators across the four groups of participants were established. The motivators were:

  1. importance of preserving one’s heritage, being part of the Ukrainian community, and supporting Ukrainian studies;
  2. importance of language and culture for communication purposes;
  3. travel;
  4. further education and career;
  5. enjoyment; and
  6. academic gains and rewards.

The demotivators were noted as:

  1. a (mis)perception of level of academic accomplishment;
  2. misconceptions and lack of knowledge about course offerings, opportunities, and requirements.

The following were classified as either motivators or demotivators:

  1. interest in the humanities (including Ukrainian);
  2. degree requirements, scheduling, and course offerings.

What needs to be stressed here is that among the demotivators, students reported lack of knowledge about course offerings and course relevance to their degrees, which prevented or discouraged them from enrolling in Ukrainian studies courses.

At the learner level, students’ comments reinforced their answers in the quantitative study and demonstrated that “Group 1: language enrolled” respondents, despite being mostly positively oriented, are the least confident in their learning process. These respondents often viewed their progress as unsatisfactory and inadequate. The responses also suggested that the learning expectations of respondents in Group 1 were not fully met. Such results signal that in the future, Group 1 current language learners will most likely drop out of courses and/or the program. In “Group 4: never enrolled,” the comments about their perception of level of academic accomplishment were somewhat alarming. In this group, some students did not see any need to enrol in Ukrainian studies courses at the post-secondary level, as they viewed them as neither new nor challenging. In the students’ view, the Ukrainian classes at the post-secondary level would only duplicate what they already knew from home, community, or secondary school experiences.

Analysis at the learning situation level allowed us to determine that although students were content with the group atmosphere overall, differences in proficiency levels within the group figured as noticeable demotivators. Moreover, regarding course-load and teaching resources, some participants commented strongly on the relevance and quality of the teaching materials. Particularly, in “Group 1: language enrolled,” several participants expressed their desire and general need for resources that are communicatively oriented (i.e., not grammar-based) and applicable to real-life situations. Many comments related to the students’ wishes for more technologically enhanced resources to be incorporated into the curriculum. For language learners, an additional demotivator was the variant of language taught—specifically, a lack of acknowledgment of existing variants of the language (in this case, the variant or language level the student uses at home).

The study summarized in the foregoing raises several important questions for us to consider in teaching Ukrainian studies. Please also note that in our original study we do not claim to provide answers to all the questions that we may have about the students and their learning experiences in Ukrainian studies at the post-secondary level with respect to motivational considerations. Next steps would be to include a larger data sample from other post-secondary programs in Ukrainian studies, thus increasing the generalizability of the results to larger populations.

It is also important to go beyond Ukrainian studies and compare the motivations of learners in other Slavic contexts, as well as more commonly taught languages, literatures, and cultures, and how they may enhance our understanding of the broader picture. The study of instructors’ perspectives is yet to be carried out and will most likely yield interesting results. Do we as instructors shift and/or continue to shift, as our students do? How are our perspectives similar to or different from those of our students? In which aspects do we merge with or diverge from our students? Do we understand our students and their learning experiences? Do we understand what students are looking for in language, literature, culture, folklore, history, and other courses?

In the language classroom in particular, based on issues flagged by “Group 1: language enrolled” participants, we need to address the correlation between motivational levels of learners and their language proficiency levels: How do motivational profiles shift and change as students gain more experience in language learning? The research questions about our contemporary learners are endless but crucial to our own academic existence. So why do such studies and their findings remain on the periphery of our academic inquiries, be they individual or collective?

Recommendations and conclusions

Our original study was an initial step toward formally assessing our current situation and comprehending contemporary learners. As noted above, our results propose some practical values and applications. Therefore, allow me to conclude with some recommendations that stem directly from our empirical data and analysis. My specific recommendations, in no particular order, are as follows:

1. With respect to teaching materials:

   >          The desire and need are for new, contemporary, technologically enhanced materials that are relevant to modern students, allowing them to apply the gained knowledge in real-life situations.

>          For language-specific classrooms, students’ clear wishes are for outcomes that promote the ability to function and communicate in the language. Thus, learning and teaching materials need to reflect such desires and needs.

2. With respect to language teaching, and the variant(s) of the language taught in particular:

     >          In our view, at the post-secondary level the language to be taught is contemporary Ukrainian as spoken in Ukraine today.

  >          Importantly, teaching awareness about language variants, fostering tolerance toward different language varieties (to which some students are very sensitive), and promoting inclusivity are to be considered seriously and implemented in the learning process. Additionally, it must be underlined that language variant issues are more often related to the higher level being taught at university rather than to actual concerns over dialect.

3. With respect to instructors:

    >          Students desire clear communication and transparency with respect to course objectives and expectations, as well as the establishment of a fair grading system. This recommendation may seem obvious, but it was voiced by our respondents, suggesting the need for more careful attention to these points.

4. In language teaching:

  >          The factor of different levels of student proficiency in a single classroom proved to be one of the highest demotivators, which influenced the perception of group atmosphere, grading, self-efficacy, and perception of students’ progress. This factor requires thoughtful consideration. Assessment techniques need to be developed accordingly, and appropriate placement tests are strongly advised.

   >          In this respect, we need to communicate across campuses, across various institutions and programs, and learn from one another about possible placement and assessment practices in a differentiated classroom.

My more general recommendations are as follows:

5. Information about programs:

         Informing students about course offerings and how these courses are relevant and applicable to their degrees and possible careers must be made more explicit and take on the form of marketing campaigns and student outreach activities. Here we must continually delve into the information-seeking methods of our students. Specifically, do our students even use the traditional information venues, and which information-sharing devices, networks, and platforms are most effective today?

6. Information about content:

            >          Students need to be better educated about course content in order to be better judges of what they have already accomplished, as well as what new knowledge a particular course could contribute to their overall educational goals and professional experiences. In this respect, we must note the inadequacy of our programs in promoting the value of studying Ukrainian subjects at the university level. If completion of a given specialty—be it history, foreign language, mathematics, and the like— is sufficient at the high-school graduate level, then there really is no need to study anything at the university level. Yet some students consider it natural to continue their other studies at the university level but regard their Ukrainian language level, or knowledge of Ukrainian subjects, as sufficient if they have completed a high-school curriculum or have been exposed to some Ukrainian content and activities in the family or the community. We are failing to convince students that learning at the university level will lead to a higher degree of knowledge and functionality, as with their other studies or even beyond. Visiting potential students at schools and community events to inform them about available options, courses, and programs is one step toward reaching out to our potential audience and building their engagement.

7. New focus of offerings:

      >          Regarding specific courses, we need to refocus the content of courses that we offer. Students are no longer interested in narrowly defined courses. We noted that the interest of today’s students is in the functional use of language and knowledge. Courses of interest relate to today’s Ukraine (such as “Euromaidan” at the University of Alberta and the University of Manitoba, or “Modern Ukraine and Russian-Ukrainian Conflict” at the University of Victoria), and certainly not to a philological perspective in the classical sense. Our courses must adapt to the new realities of today’s world and today’s learners.

8. Majors and minors:

       >          The question of Ukrainian majors or minors is influenced by these new realities and shifts in students’ perceptions and needs. And although the question of majors and minors was not studied or discussed above, I would like to add a recommendation, as suggested by Benjamin Rifkin, who notes on the basis of his research of foreign language departments in the United States:

The definition of the language major should be reconceptualized to include not only literature but also history, society and social practices, politics, arts, and economics, by including readings from these disciplines in advanced-language courses.…Including area studies courses would enhance language major programs and promote collaboration with colleagues in other fields.…The major could also be expanded to include opportunities in collaboration with off-campus partners to facilitate experiential learning.…Faculty members might consider establishing a major “track,” one for language and literature and another for language and civilization (Rifkin 73).

These recommendations are relevant in light of the discussion above with respect to what students really want and need in their academic experience, and what type of knowledge they strive for. The question of majors and minors, as well as various certificates in which Ukrainian studies may play a role, deserves further study, particularly as regards testing and sharing of successful practices.

9. New direction:

   >          Adapt and remodel is my next recommendation: adapt to the new realities of universities, societies, and communities, and remodel based on our knowledge of today’s learners and their current needs. Our research, and the application of this research in our teaching and delivery of knowledge to audiences that we study and know, and to which we tailor our delivery, will most likely yield a solid basis for change or complete remodelling.

10. Audience:

            >          And my final recommendation is to cultivate our audience by means of carefully planned and engaging, modern, innovative, and relevant courses and programs that are empirically informed and reflect our knowledge of today’s reality, society, community, and, most critically, our contemporary learners.



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